In our modern religious rhetoric, it is not uncommon to hear about a person’s “soul” – an immaterial entity that animates the body and lives on after death. Certain English Bible translations, like the King James rendering of Psalm 42:4, seem to support this idea of a soul inside the body: “When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me.” However, before concluding that the ancient Israelites believed in a non-physical, internal “soul,” we must ascertain (1) what the KJV means by “soul” and (2) what the underlying Hebrew means in its own linguistic context. Answering these two questions will show that the ancient Israelites did not share the common contemporary notion of a “soul.”

Most often, the King James uses “soul” to signify a physical “person,” not an ethereal, internal force. For instance, Exodus recalls the Hebrews who migrated to Egypt: “And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was already in Egypt” (Exod 1:5 KJV). In this case, “soul” refers to an “individual person” or “human being.” Like Joseph, who is “already in Egypt,” the descendants of Israel who “came out of Jacob’s loins” (יצאי ירך יעקב; yotsey yerek ya’aqov) are embodied people, not intangible “souls.” This use of “soul” is equivalent to its use in “not a soul in sight,” which tells us that there is not a single person around, not that we can’t see any invisible entities!

The Hebrew word translated “soul” is נפשׁ (nefesh), which means one’s “self,” “life,” or “person.” Genesis 12:5 clarifies this usage: “Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance [or “goods” (רכושׁם; rekhusham)] that they had gathered, and the souls (נפשׁ; nefesh) they had gotten in in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan” (KJV). Since every other entity listed in this verse is either a physical person (Abram, Sarai, Lot) or physical objects (“substance” or “goods”), it follows that the “souls” are physical “persons” or “lives”—Abram isn’t herding abstract souls into the land of Canaan.

The most fundamental meaning of נפשׁ is “neck” or “throat,” as reflected in Psalm 69:1: “Save me, God; for the waters have come up to [my] neck (נפשׁ; nefesh).” The term came to mean one’s entire “life” because, the Hebrew logic goes: cut the throat, and lose the life. This is why the psalmist asks God to “guard my life” (שׁמרה נפשׁי; shamrah nafshi) from physical enemies who seek to kill him (cf. Ps 25:20; 86:2). The ancient Israelites did not think in terms of a “soul” separate from the body; rather, the Hebrew נפשׁ describes a person’s selfhood—that is, one’s very being.   

The Bible can provide us with truth, but it can also be difficult to decipher! Whether you're looking for some biblical direction, stumped on scriptural questions, or just want to confirm that you're already on the right track, join the growing community of faculty and students at Israel Bible Center! (Click here to begin your journey of discovery).

52 COMMENTS

  1. According to Genesis 2:7 God did not make a body and put a soul into it like a letter into an envelope of atoms; rather he formed man’s body from the atoms, then, by breathing divine breath into it, he made the body of atoms live, i.e. the earth molecules did not embody a soul, but it became a soul—a whole creature.
    What is less clear is how is a new spiritual entity (human) made. At conception a new human is created – a blend of the parents genetics. It is not inconceivable to consider at conception both the body and spirit is made. As humans were created in the beginning in His image, so we procreate giving our children a unique spirit but in his image.

    • Thanks, Thomas. I agree with you on your first sentence. Since the day man sinned, his spirit “died.” This is why Jesus commanded Nicodemus to be re-borned, i.e. Nicodemus is a living soul with a “dead” spirit.

    • We also see it in Ezekiel when God caused the dry bones to live again referring to Israel as a nation.

  2. Would you say the English words soul and spirit get intertwined, as in which of the two exists in the afterlife?
    I’ve always heard both used in afterlife discussions and thought they should be separated as one or the other and the terms clarified as you did here.
    J.

    • Thanks for your question, Jerry. Yes, I think that “soul” gets equated with “spirit” in common parlance, but the two are very different concepts in Hebrew thought. I’m planning to write an article on “spirit” next, so I’ll unpack more of what I mean soon!

  3. In the book tongue of the profits Ben-yeduda the father of modern Hebrew died while working on the word soul.

  4. To me the soul is like a deed. It is the entitlement to the body and spirit. However the body dies but the spirit lives on in memory of the body, so the soul continues to live. Wherever the deed/soul is, the ownership is with the holding entity.

  5. I don’t know if there is really a concept of soul in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in Torah, though the Prophet talk about it. Can someone give a clarification?

  6. Just like in the modern Church of Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith stated, “The soul is the body and the spirit.”

  7. I understand the Greek concept of soul has confused the English readers understanding of the Hebrew definition.

  8. the trinity of man Spirit soul and body
    The spirit touches the spirit wold
    The soul touches the intellectual realm
    The body touches the material realm
    it would take a long lesson to explain it all

  9. In Genesis story it is quite apparent that God allowed His creative power, to bring forth man from the earth – He takes the slime of the earth and shapes Adam – and breathing into it or giving His spirit or Soul so that he becomes a spirited being.

  10. 2 Corinthians 5.8 We are confident and prefer to live away from this body and to live with the Lord.
    If we live away from the body what is left to live with the Lord??? The Bible is very clear about this.

    • Thanks for your reply, Georg. You do well to cite 2 Cor 5:8, but notice that Paul doesn’t use “soul” language here. We needn’t import the notion of an abstract, internal “soul” in order to understand what Paul means here — I will be writing about “spirit” and “spiritual bodies” in the next couple of articles, so stay tuned.

  11. Judaism believes in three levels of souls: NEFESH, RUACH and NESHAMA.
    Nefesh the lowest level animates the body.
    Ruach the spirit animates a person’s spirit.
    Neshama guides a persons beliefs, connects a person to God and returns to Him after one dies

  12. I believe in the trinity of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Each is not the other but each is God. As we are made in the image of God this must be a spiritual likeness as God is a Spirit. As such we are also a trinity (body, soul, spirit)

  13. Interesting and controversial topic. I think of beginnings, Genesis as where it all began. Is Genesis 2 saying that the breath of God is air or the spark of life that defines human existence?

  14. Isaiah 11:1-4 seems to be attributing certain aspects like wisdom, understanding and knowledge, to spirit. So, if man is made of clay and Gods spark or breath, is spirit more the unique characteristics which develop as character develops in the mortal/immortal man? Mortal/immortal is another, or perhaps similar debatable topic.

  15. Dr. Nicholas J. Schaser I would like to have your article on the “spirit” and also what the difference is between soul and spirit and how they fit into the body to form a person. And then there is the Holy Spirit that comes and lives in us.

  16. Romans 7:22 Paul desires the law after the inward man, and in 2 Corinthians 5:4 he groans from inside. doesn’t this show a being inside as opposed to a whole being in flesh and soul?

  17. What is going on in Ezekiel with the bones. What does Adonai ask the prophet to come into the bones? Breath? Spirit? They get covered with sinews and flesh but then something else was needed. Did this actually happen. …and the bones came together …

    • Great question, Marta. According to Ezek 37:5, God says, “I will cause spirit (or “wind”; ruach) to enter you, and you shall live.” Most English translations translate רוח (ruach) as “breath,” but I would argue that “spirit” or “wind” is better (“breath” is usually “nishmah,” rather than “ruach”). The vision of dry bones is a metaphor for the return of the exiled Jews to their own land (see Ezek 37:14), but the vision also points to the literal, physical resurrection of the dead.

  18. My understanding is that we consist of a body, soul, and spirit.
    Our body is what we see.
    Our soul is our mind, will, and emotions.
    Our spirit lives on into eternity.

    • Thanks for this, Margaret. I think you’re certainly on the right track. The only emendations I would make are that the “soul” (nefesh) is one’s “life” or “personhood” — that is, whatever makes me “me.” And the “spirit” (or spiritual body) lives on until the final resurrection of the dead, after which time people receive renewed physical bodies that last eternally on a renewed earth.

  19. I have come to understand humans, created by God as being triune created as this: Body (physical vessel), Soul (mind, consciousness, awareness), Spirit (breath of life which originates and returns to its originator, God). All creatures that have breath were created as such with only humans in His image.

  20. This page is really interesting. I’d love to hear more but I’m on Social Security and can’t afford the cost. I’m asking God to bless you and am hoping you reach many souls.

  21. Richard Wurmbrand was my friend. He spoke Hebrew Romanian Russian and a few others he was quite the wordsmith. I’ve vaguely remember him saying The root Of soul is from the feminine. Bride and bride groom church feminine bride groom male. Could you expound on that?

    • Thanks for your question, David. I can confirm that the Hebrew word נפשׁ (nefesh) is a feminine noun, but I’m not sure what you’re asking in the “bride/bridegroom male/female” part of the question…

  22. I always assumed that Body, Soul and Spirit were three different entities of a human being.
    The Body being the home of the Soul and Spirit. The Soul being the controller of thought and emotion and the Spirit that “ Spark “ that gives life to the Body.

    • Yes, this is a common threefold breakdown of body, soul, and spirit. My only emendation would be that, in biblical thought, the body does not “house” the “soul,” as though the latter were a non-physical, breath-like entity similar to the “spirit.” What is translated as “soul” (nefesh) should be understood as one’s “self”; that is, a description of personhood — both body and spirit.

  23. Please let me say what the word ΨΥΧΗ “soul” means in Greek. It derives (from the verb “ψύχω”, meaning “πνεύω”) literally means “breathing”.
    The more you understand the Hebrew and Greek Ancient Koini language the more you understand the Scriptures.

  24. Thanks for being honest enough and brave enough to teach the truth about what the Bible really says about the soul. Inadvertently, you have shown how far “Christian” Churches have strayed from Biblical teachings.

    • Thanks for reading, Gerry. The problem is that lots of discourse around the “soul” bleeds into church lingo, and pastors, priests, and congregants don’t realize that much of what’s being said isn’t necessarily biblical. This is why it’s important for church leaders to be studying the biblical languages… but, alas, many seminaries don’t have language requirements anymore.

  25. Dr.Schaser. I’ve read with great interest your article ( The ancient Israelites did not think in terms of a “soul” separate from the body; rather, the Hebrew נפשׁ describes a person’s selfhood—that is, one’s very being.) What does Matthew 10:28 mean then…Do not be afraid of those who kill…

    • Great question, Georg. Matt 10:28 is a point of scholarly debate. Some scholars see the dichotomy between “body” and “soul” as reflecting a Greek influence on Matthew’s thought (the Gospel, after all, is written in Greek). Others would say that we should understand “soul” (ψυχή; psyche) not as the Greek abstraction, but rather as one’s “life” or “vitality” (as in the Hebrew נפשׁ). That is, Jesus maybe be saying, “Don’t be worried about the destruction of your mere body (i.e., the flesh), but of both the physical body and your very nefesh (selfhood or life-force).” A comparative verse might be Leviticus 17:11: “The life (נפשׁ; nefesh, usually translated “soul”) of the animal is in the blood.” The text doesn’t mean that there is a Greek-style abstract “soul” floating around in an animal’s blood; rather, Lev 17:11 says that “life-force” is in the blood — beyond the animal’s mere “body” there is a life-force within its blood that constitutes the “being” of the animal. When Jesus talks about the destruction of both the “body” and the very “life force” or “being” of a person being destroyed, he may be making the same kind of distinction that we find in Leviticus vis-a-vis the sacrificial animal.

  26. Hi Dr. I was taught that if we die we go to paradise, because JESUS when He assended he took Sheol up with HIM next to heavan? When Cremated, how will the spirit and body be reunited at end times. I have lot unanswered questions but just 25 words

    • Really good questions. Yes, Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). However, “paradise” need not be equated with “heaven.” Heaven is where God (and now Jesus) lives, rather than the place where people go when they die. Instead, the righteous go to “paradise” (i.e., to a paradisal place where they reside with Jesus) as they await the bodily resurrection of the dead. Since the Bible already assumes that bodies will return to dust (e.g., Gen 3:19), those who are cremated will be given reconstituted bodies at the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:35-49).

  27. Thanks alot Dr. that heloed alot, I was afraid to be cremated and maybe miss my REDEEMER when there is no body to re-united to. I want to be selfish like John, come LORD JESUS come. Enjoy all the teachings so much. Be blessed

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your name here
Words left: 50
Please enter your comment!